We went to O’Hare. I met Brother Wang in the chapel at the international concourse. He was a short, wiry Asian man in sweeping robes the color of sunset. His bald head gleamed, making his age tough to guess, though his features were wrinkled with the marks of someone who smiles often.
“Miss sir Dresden,” he said, breaking into a wide smile as I came in with the box of sleeping puppies. “Our little one dogs you have given to us!”
Brother Wang’s English was worse than my Latin, and that’s saying something, but his body language was unmistakable. I returned his smile, and offered him the box with a bow of my head. “It was my pleasure.”
Wang took the box and set it down carefully, then started gently sorting through its contents. I waited, looking around the little chapel, a plain room built to be a quiet space for meditation, so that those who believed in something would have a place to pay honor to their faith. The airport had redecorated the room with a blue carpet instead of a beige one. They’d repainted the walls. There was a new podium at the front of the room, and half a dozen replacement padded pews.
I guess that much blood leaves a permanent stain, no matter how much cleaner you dump on it.
I put my foot on the spot where a gentle old man had given up his life to save mine. It made me feel sad, but not bitter. If we had it to do again, he and I would make the same choices. I just wished I’d been able to know him longer than I had. It’s not everyone who can teach you something about faith without saying a word to do it.
Brother Wang frowned at the white powder all over the puppies, and held up one dust-coated hand with an inquisitive expression.
“Oops,” I said.
“Ah,” Wang said, nodding. “Oops. Okay, oops.” He frowned at the box.
“Is it that all the little one dogs are boxed in?”
I shrugged. “I got all of them that were in the building. I don’t know if anyone moved some of them before I did.”
“Okay,” Brother Wang said. “Less is more better than nothing.” He straightened and offered me his hand. “Much thanks from my brothers.”
I shook it. “Welcome.”
“Plane leaving now for home.” Wang reached into his robe and pulled out an envelope. He passed it to me, bowed once more, then took the box of puppies and swept out of the room.
I counted the priest’s money, which probably says something about my level of cynicism. I’d racked up a fairly hefty fee on this one, first picking up the trail of the sorcerer who had stolen the pups, then tracking him down and snooping around long enough to know when he went out to get some dinner. It had taken me nearly a week of sixteen hour days to find the concealed location of the room where the pups were held. After that, I’d had to identify the demons guarding them, and work out a spell that would neutralize them without, for example, burning down the building.
All in all, my pay amounted to a couple of nice, solid stacks of Ben Franklins. I’d added on a surcharge for playing repo man. Of course, if I’d known about the flaming poo, I’d have added more. Some things demand overtime.
I left. Thomas was sitting on the hood of the Beetle. He hadn’t bothered moving it to the actual parking lot, instead taking up a section of curb at the loading zone outside the concourse. A patrol cop had evidently come over to tell him to move it, but she was a fairly attractive woman and Thomas was Thomas. He had taken off her hat and had it perched on his head at a rakish angle, and the cop looked relaxed and was laughing as I came walking up.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s get moving. Things to do.”
“Alas,” he said, taking off the hat and offering it back to the officer with a little bow. “Unless you’re about to arrest me, Elizabeth?”
“Not this time, I suppose,” the cop said.
“Damn the luck.” Thomas said.
She smiled at him, then frowned at me. “Aren’t you Harry Dresden?”
The cop nodded, putting on her hat. “Thought I recognized you. Lieutenant Murphy says you’re good people.”
“A lot of people don’t much like Murphy.”
“Aw shucks,” I said. “I blush when I feel all flattered like that.”
The cop stepped up onto the sidewalk and began moving on down it. Thomas swung his legs off the car and pitched my keys at me. I caught them and got in the driver’s side.
“Okay,” I said, when Thomas got in. “Where do I meet this guy?”
“He’s holding a little soiree for his filming crew tonight in a condo on the Gold Coast. Drinks, DJ, snacks, that kind of thing.”
“Snacks,” I said. “I’m in.”
“Just promise me you won’t fill up your pockets with peanuts or something.” Thomas gave me directions, and I got moving. “Hey Harry, can I ask you something?”
“Did you really save the world? I mean, like the last two years in a row?”
I shrugged. “Sort of.”
“Word is you capped a faerie princess and headed off a war between Winter and Summer,” Thomas said.
“Mostly I was saving my own ass. Just happened that the world was in the same spot.”
“That image is going to give me nightmares,” Thomas said. “What about those demon Hell guys last year?”
I shook my head. “They’d have let loose a nasty plague, but it wouldn’t have lasted very long. They were hoping it would escalate it into a nice apocalypse. They knew there wasn’t much chance of it, but they were doing it anyway.”
“Like playing the Lotto,” Thomas said.
“In a genocidal kind of way, I guess.”
“And you stopped them.”
“I helped, yeah. But there was tragedy.”
“I didn’t get paid for either of those cases. I make more money from flaming demon monkey crap, and that’s just wrong.”
Thomas laughed a little and shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?”
“Why you do it.”
He folded his arms and slouched down with his eyes half-closed. “The Lone Ranger impersonation. You get pounded to scrap every time you turn around and you barely get by on the gumshoe work. You live in that dank little cave of an apartment. Alone. You’ve got no woman, no friends, and you drive this piece of crap. Your life is kind of pathetic.”
“Is that what you think?” I asked.
“Call them like I see them.”
I laughed. “Why do you think I do it?”
He shrugged. “All I can figure is that either you’re nursing a deep and sadistic self-hatred or else you’re insane. I gave you the benefit of the doubt and left monumental stupidity off the list.”
I kept on smiling. “Thomas, you don’t really know me. Not at all.”
“I think I do. I’ve seen you under pressure.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, but you see me what? Maybe a day or two each year? Usually when something’s been warming up to kill me by beating the tar out of me.”
“So that doesn’t cover what my life is like the other three hundred and sixty three days,” I said. “You don’t know everything about me. My life isn’t completely about magical mayhem and creative pyromania in Chicago.”
“Oh, that’s right. I heard you went to exotic Oklahoma a few months back. Something about a tornado and the National Severe Storms Lab.”
“I was doing the new Summer Lady a favor, running down a rogue storm sylph. Got to go all over the place in those tornado chaser geekmobiles. You should have seen the look on the driver’s face when he realized that the tornado was chasing us.”
“It’s a nice story, Harry, but what’s the point?” Thomas asked.
“My point is that there’s a lot of my life you haven’t seen. I have friends.”
“Monster hunters, werewolves and a talking skull.”
I shook my head. “More than that. I like my apartment. Hell, for that matter I like my car.”
“You like this piece of junk?”
“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
Thomas slouched down in his seat, his expression skeptical. “Now you’ve forced me to reconsider the monumentally stupid explanation.”
I shrugged. “Me and the Blue Beetle kick ass. In a four cylinder kind of way, but it still gets kicked.”
Thomas’s face lost all expression. “What about Susan?”
When I get angry, I’d like to be able to pull off a great stone face like that, but I don’t do it so well. “What about her?”
“You cared about her. You got her involved in your life. She got torn up because of you. She got attention from all kinds of nasties and she nearly died.” He kept staring ahead. “How do you live with that?”
I started to get angry but I had a rare flash of insight and my ire evaporated before it could fully condense. I studied Thomas’ profile at a stoplight, and saw him working hard to look distant, like nothing was touching him.
“How’s Justine?” I asked.
His features grew colder. “Turn right up here, the gate on that lot.” He passed me a white envelope. “Give that to the guard.”
I took the envelope and said, “How is she, Thomas.”
“I’m a vampire, Harry.” He folded his arms. “She’s food. That’s how she is.”
He was working hard not to give anything away, so I figured he was full of crap. But I wasn’t going to push him. Most of the time, Thomas was an annoying wiseass who tended to make everyone he met want to kill him, and when I have that much in common with someone, I can’t help but like them a little.
It was easy for me to forget what he was, and I couldn’t afford that. He was a vampire of the White Court. They didn’t drink blood. They fed on emotions, on feelings, drawing the life energy from their prey through them. The way I understood it, it was usually during sex, and rumor had it that their kind could seduce a saint. I’d seen Thomas start to feed once, and whatever it was that made him not quite human had completely taken control of him. It left him a cold, beautiful, marble-white being of naked hunger. It was an acutely uncomfortable memory. The Whites weren’t as physically formidable or aggressively organized as the Red Court, and they didn’t have the raw, terrifying power of the Black Court, but they didn’t have all the usual vampire weaknesses, either. Sunlight wasn’t a problem for Thomas, and from what I’d seen, crosses and other holy articles didn’t bother him either. But just because they weren’t as inhuman as the other Courts didn’t make the Whites less dangerous. In fact, the way I saw it, it made them more of a threat in some ways. It would be a lot easier to let down my guard for someone nearly human.
Speaking of which, I told myself, I was agreeing to help him and taking a job, just as though Thomas was any other client. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’d ever done. It had the potential to lead to lethally unhealthy decisions.
I pulled in where Thomas told me to and leaned out of my car to offer the envelope to the guard in the little kiosk at the entrance of the parking lot.
A squeaky, bubbling growl erupted from directly below my seat. I flinched.
“What the hell is that?” Thomas said.
I pulled up to the guard kiosk and stopped. I reached for my magical senses and extended them toward the source of the continuing growl. “Crap. I think it’s one of the ”
A sort of greasy, nauseating cold flooded over my magical senses, stealing my breath. A ghostly charnel-house scent came with it, the smell of old blood and rotting meat. I froze, looking up at the source of the sensation.
The person I’d taken to be a security guard was a vampire of the Black Court.
It had been a young man. Its features looked familiar, but dessication had left its face too gaunt for me to be sure. The vampire wasn’t tall. Death had withered it into an emaciated caricature of a human being. Its eyes were covered with a white, rheumy film and flakes of dead flesh fell from its decay-drawn lips and clung to its yellowed teeth. Hair like brittle, dead grass stood out from its head, and there was some kind of moss or mold growing in it.
It snatched at me with inhuman speed, but my wizard’s senses had given me enough warning to keep its skeletal fingers from closing on my wrist just barely. The vampire caught a bit of my duster’s leather sleeve with the tips of its fingers. I jerked my arm back, but the vampire had as much strength in its fingertips as I did in my whole upper body. I had to pull hard, twisting with my shoulders to break free. I choked out a shout, and the sudden rush of fear made it high and thready.
The vampire rushed me, slithering out through the guardhouse window like a freeze-dried snake. I had a panicked instant to realize that if the vampire closed to wrestling-range with me inside the car, they’d be harvesting my organs out of a mound of scrap metal and spare parts.
And I wasn’t strong enough to stop it from happening.